From Mugabe to Buthelezi: Why do we tell glowing lies about brutal legacies?

By Mondli Makhanya

What exactly is it about us humans that makes us feel compelled to tell glowing lies about dead people?

What is this bizarre medical condition that pushes us to turn the cruelest and vilest among us into saints as soon as their hearts stop beating?

Listening to some of the tributes to the belatedly dead former president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, over the past fortnight, one could have sworn that Pope Francis’ recent visit to southern Africa was organised to check on the man’s credentials for beatification.

In South Africa, we had everyone from Julius Malema to President Cyril Ramaphosa turning history and reality upside down as they tried to portray Mugabe as an unblemished champion of the rights of African people.

But it was former president Thabo Mbeki who took the cake when he spoke in Durban last week.

To Mbeki, Mugabe “was a great patriot, a defender of Africa’s independence, a defender of Africa’s interests”.

To Mbeki, the man who oversaw the slaughter of more than 20 000 people in Matabeleland in the 1980s and visited misery on the Zimbabwean population during the last 20 years of his rule “was very brave”.

This man, who lived in supreme luxury while he drove his people into extreme poverty and who enjoyed exceptional medical care in foreign lands while he was collapsing the Zimbabwean healthcare system, “was very principled”.

“That is why many people of the world didn’t want him. For us, he was a fellow combatant and a leader who would never abandon our struggle for liberation,” Mbeki said.

He even turned populist and sounded like an unkempt Andile Mngxitama when he pronounced that South Africa had protected Mugabe from international pressure because “there is nobody who is going to come from London and decide for Zimbabweans how they should govern”.

One of the litany of lies that were peddled about Mugabe in the wake of his death was that he was a good friend of the ANC and an accommodating host of exiles living in that country, but it is a well-known fact that he was hostile to the country’s main liberation movement, preferring the obscure Pan Africanist Congress instead.

But the biggest lie told by Mbeki, perhaps to justify his ineffectual “quiet diplomacy” approach to the Zimbabwean crisis, was that Mugabe decided to delay land reform in that country by a decade to not scare South Africa’s white rulers off from negotiating an end to apartheid.

“The land reform process was delayed in Zimbabwe for at least a decade. It was done in order for us to complete our negotiations,” said the man who valiantly defended the dictator as he was erasing the words ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and ‘constitutionalism’ from the Zimbabwean dictionary.

But we should not be shocked by the sanctification of this evil man.

That is what humans do, mostly in the spirit of it not being right to speak ill of the dead.

Even the great pilferer Josiah “Fingers” Rabotapi was hailed as a “child of God” at his funeral in the late 1990s.

Which brings us to another man who seems to be on a crusade to ensure that the obituaries and orations that will follow his passing will be glowing.

That man, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, has been at pains to tell the world that he is the real architect of democratic South Africa.

Having finally handed over the reins after a 44-year tenure as leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Buthelezi now wants to craft a narrative for his legacy that is grossly at odds with reality.

And, as the human condition that makes us lie about those who have moved on kicks in, he will have succeeded.

But the biggest lie told by Mbeki, perhaps to justify his ineffectual “quiet diplomacy” approach to the Zimbabwean crisis, was that Mugabe decided to delay land reform in that country by a decade to not scare South Africa’s white rulers off from negotiating an end to apartheid.

What makes his case worse is that the powerful and prominent in our body politic have already started lying about him.

They did so in Parliament a few years ago when Buthelezi announced that he would be quitting as an MP, only to return to his seat and remain there to this day.

In speeches in the National Assembly, leaders who very well know his murderous ways praised his contribution to the birth of democratic South Africa and his role in the maturing of the republic.

When he turned 90 last year, this lying fest continued, with the man whose every finger drips with the blood of activists and freedom fighters being showered with praise.

While it is correct to wish him a long life, it is best we tell him while he is alive that his real legacy is not the one that lives in his head.

The more we allow Buthelezi to dictate how he should be remembered, the more we are likely to fall into the trap of painting him as a servant of the revolution when he is gone.

He should be reminded while he is alive that he was an apartheid collaborator, a Bantustan leader and a puppet of successive apartheid governments.

Buthelezi should be reminded of the thousands and thousands of widows and orphans left behind by his death squads and impis; of the mothers and fathers who had to bury their children killed in his name.

He must be reminded of the merciless massacres inside train coaches in the early 1990s.

As he navigates his last years on the planet, the names of Boipatong, Trust Feed, KwaMakhutha, Swanieville and many more massacres that were carried out by his men must ring in his head and the bloodied corpses must always flash across his eyes.

Mondli Makhanya is Editor in Chief of City Press

City Press